Violence against women on college campuses is not OK. No one should have to be a victim of sexual assault, and those who have suffered deserve justice. Our desire to give victims justice, however, shouldn't be allowed to cause injustice for others.
When it comes to sexual misconduct, we've become quick to judge. Nowhere is that truer than on college campuses. No school wants to wind up the subject of a CNN investigation, and they'll do anything they can to avoid it. That includes slanting the justice system to favor accusers and handing out punishments that are completely out of proportion to infractions.
Who is most likely to get a university featured on the evening news? Athletes. Who is most likely to be mistreated by schools, then? Athletes. The irony is, athletes have the most to lose when it comes to Title IX.
Garrett Wittels was a star baseball player at Florida International University in 2010. How big a star? As a sophomore, he hit .412, with 60 RBIs. Even more impressive, he had a hit in all fifty-six games he played that year. ESPN was talking about him, and it looked like he might have a very bright future in the major leagues.
Then several young women accused Wittels and four other men of having spiked their drinks and assaulting them at a Bahamas casino. Wittels admitted to the encounter but insisted it was consensual.
These stories all tend to unfold in the same way. Within a matter of days, the accusations were public, and news vans were parked all over campus looking for a salacious story. Though the investigation was ongoing, several in the media began asking why Wittels had not been dismissed from the FIU baseball team. In fact, the school did bar Wittels from living on campus, and only the intervention of his lawyer kept him on the team.
Luckily for Wittels, video evidence cast serious doubt on the girls' stories. Ultimately, he was cleared of any wrongdoing and allowed to resume his career in baseball.
Incidents like these almost always take a toll on the person going through them, however. The most explosive accusations against Wittels came out during the MLB draft, and, of course, he went undrafted as a result. He was eventually picked up by the St. Louis Cardinals and spent two years playing for several different minor league clubs. He was never able to recover the magic he'd had as a college player, though, and it's difficult to believe his ordeal didn't play some role in his early exit from baseball.
Punishing the Innocent
The “spoiled, entitled athlete” is one of our favorite tropes. In fact, a study by the ESPN program Outside the Lines found that athletes at the 32 schools that are members of the so-called Power Five athletic conferences are more than three times more likely than their fellow students to face sexual misconduct accusations.
The fact is, we like it when stars get taken down. There's something satisfying when someone we think has too much hubris stumbles and falls. So, we're quick to believe it when we're told a college baseball player is in trouble. When it turns out they're innocent—as in the case of Wittels or three University of Maryland, Baltimore County players who were actually dismissed from their school in 2017—we're less interested.
Anyone can be accused of sexual misconduct; anyone can have their lives ruined by such an accusation. College athletes, though, have even more on the line. A few of the lucky ones, like Wittell, have the prospect of professional sports and seven, eight, or nine-figure salaries. Even those who won't go pro, though, are often attending school on an athletic scholarship. When that scholarship is taken away, they may not be able to get a college degree at all, even if they're not dismissed from the school.
The Bottom Line
If the spoiled athlete ever did actually exist, those days are long gone. Since 1972, Title IX has ensured every accused student is investigated, and in our current political climate, accused athletes are almost guaranteed to endure a living nightmare from which they usually don't recover. Again, no one would ever suggest that we take allegations of sexual misconduct lightly. Surely, though, that shouldn't lead us simply to disregard principles like “innocent until proven guilty”?